June 13, 2013
The Postal Service has decided to go ahead with the sale of the historic Bronx General Post Office. Tom Samra, Vice President of Facilities for the USPS, has issued his “Final Decision for Relocation of Retail Services in Bronx, New York.” (A copy is here.)
The Bronx GPO is on the National Register of Historic Places, it's an official New York City landmark, and it's the largest of 29 Depression-era post offices in the city. As David Dunlap wrote in the New York Times, the post office has been "a centerpiece of life in the borough for more than 75 years, and a monumental gallery of the work of Ben Shahn, one of America's leading Social Realist artists." Needless to say, the plan to sell the Bronx GPO has received a lot of attention.
The Postal Service announced its decision to close the Bronx GPO, sell the building, and relocate retail services on March 14, 2013. As required by federal regulations, a thirty-day period for appeals followed. The Postal Service received a lot of them. There were twenty-one letters from individual citizens, plus letters from the Executive Director of the Bronx River Art Center, the President of the East Bronx History Forum, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Office of the Bronx Borough President filed an appeal as well. This one was signed by nine New York City Council members, ten New York State Assembly members, six New York State Senate members, and three members of the U.S. House of Representatives. An appeal was also submitted by the law firm of Ford & Huff, acting on behalf of Bronx activist Julio Pabon and the National Post Office Collaborate, a Berkeley-based citizens organization fighting to save historic post offices. (More about that here.)
The appeals were not enough to change Mr. Samra’s mind. His five-page Final Decision briefly addresses the concerns expressed in these appeals, then concludes: “While the Postal Service is not insensitive to the impact of this decision on its customers and the Bronx community, the relocation of the Bronx GPO is in the best interest of the Postal Service.”
Several of the appeals argue that the Postal Service did not follow the procedural requirements described by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the statutes and regulations governing the closure of post offices. Mr. Samra says the Postal Service has correctly followed all of the proper procedures so far, and it will continue to do so as the process continues. But there’s plenty of reason to doubt that.
Relocation vs. Discontinuance
Normally when the Postal Service wants to close a post office, it must go through a lengthy discontinuance process, but the Postal Service says that it doesn’t need to do that for the Bronx GPO because it’s not really “closing” the post office. It will be opening another retail facility somewhere close by, so in fact it’s merely “relocating” the post office. That's what the Postal Service said when it sold the Venice post office, and that's what it's saying as it moves forward on selling the post offices in Santa Monica, La Jolla, Berkeley, Ukiah, and elsewhere.
That’s not just a word game. It’s a legal distinction. The requirements for a discontinuance are outlined in 39 U.S.C. 404(b), and they’re described in more detail in 39 CFR 241.3 and the USPS Discontinuance Guide. The relocation procedures are described in 39 CFR 241.4.
As a look at these regulations shows, the requirements for a relocation are much less stringent and time consuming than for a discontinuance. That’s because the impacts on the community are usually less significant when the post office is simply moving. Of course, when the post office being “relocated” is a historic landmark building that plays a crucial role in the life of the community, things are a lot more complicated, but the Postal Service still maintains that it just needs to go through a simple relocation procedure, not a full discontinuance process.
Mr. Samra’s Final Decision makes a big point out of the fact the Postal Service is following the relocation procedures outlined in CFR 241.4, but that may not be the case. There's a passage in these regulations that says if the relocation involves a property that is a historic building, the Postal Service should be following the more rigorous requirements of a discontinuance.
September 25, 2011
Remember a time before envelopes when you just folded the sheets of your letter, added a touch of sealing wax, and dropped it off at the post office? Remember when there were no stamps, and it was the person at the receiving end who paid the postage? Remember when the cost for mailing a letter depended on how far it was going, when there were even posts along the post roads to mark distances, and when it could take several weeks for a letter to go from Philadelphia to Boston? Remember when almost every post office was a "village post office" — a counter in a general store or tavern where some postal business could be conducted?
Ah, the good old days. The really good old days — the Post Office of the 18th century.
This is an important week in US postal history. It was on September 22, 1789, that the newly formed Federal Government established the Post Office and authorized the appointment of a postmaster general. A few days later, on September 26, the nation’s first postmaster general took office. And it wasn’t Ben Franklin. His name was Samuel Osgood.
Franklin is rightly known as the country’s first postmaster general, but that was before 1776 and the formation of the federal government. There had been a postal system in the country since colonial days, but it suffered from inefficiency and deficits, at least until Franklin came along. In his service to the English crown as postmaster general for over two decades, Frankln improved service and put the system in the black for the first time.
Despite his achievements, Franklin was dismissed from his post in 1774 because of his involvement with revolutionaries. A year later, the Continental Congress established the Post Office and appointed him the country’s first postmaster general. So we really have two "first" postmaster generals — Franklin before the Revolutionary War, and Osgood under the Constitution. How the Post Office ended up in the Constitution is another story.
During the Revolutionary War, military leaders and elected officials could see that a robust postal system was crucial to facilitating communication and coordinating their wartime efforts. Postal workers were even exempted from military service. In 1778, the Founding Fathers wrote into the Articles of Confederation a clause granting the United States Congress the “sole and exclusive right and power of . . . establishing and regulating post offices from one state to another, throughout all the United States.” The clause also empowered the post offices to charge postage “to defray the costs” of running the system.
Over the next few years, the value of the postal system to the young democracy became even more apparent. The Post Office truly was "binding the country together." The Post Office helped elected representatives and their constituents keep in contact, and through its distribution of newspapers, it enabled Americans to stay informed about political issues. Delivering newspapers was so important, in fact, that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson advocated reduced rates or even free delivery. Madison also believed that “by providing the citizenry with the means to monitor its elected representatives, the postal system could help to check the abuse of power” (Christopher Shaw, Preserving the People's Post Office).
In 1789, the “postal clause” of the U.S. Constitution — Article 1, section 8 — gave the Congress power over the Post Office. The passage states that the Congress “shall have the power . . . to establish Post Offices and Post Roads.” The clause was a subject of controversy from the very beginning, and three years later, when Congress debated the Post Office Act of 1792, it was about whether or not Congress could and should delegate to the postmaster general its power to establish post offices and post roads. The Senate wanted to give that role to the postmaster general, but the House said no, the Congress should retain its power.
August 28, 2011
“The Postal Service has been faced with critical financial problems in recent years.” In the last fiscal year, “Postal Service expenses exceeded revenues” by billions of dollars. “Although postage rates have increased significantly, labor and fuel costs have risen even faster. . . Rising payroll costs have been primarily responsible for this situation.”
“Because of such serious financial problems and the need to economize wherever possible,” the General Accounting Office (GAO) has conducted a review “to reassess the pros and cons of closing small post offices.” The Postal Service has also said “that it would be helpful if the [Postal Reorganization] act were amended to specifically authorize the Service to close small offices if the alternative mail service would be at least as good.”
Sound familiar? It should. It’s about all we’ve been hearing for the past few months, and it’s become the mantra of the Postmaster General, the USPS managers trying to explain to communities why their post office is going to close, and legislators looking to make it easier to close post offices.
The thing is, all those quotations are not from today’s news. They come from a GAO report prepared by the Comptroller General in the year 1975.
The urgent push to close post offices to prevent the Postal Service from going bankrupt is nothing new. The Postal Service is simply using the latest deficit “crisis” — an accounting problem caused primarily by the over-funding of retirement benefits and a slump in commercial mail caused by the recession — to do something some people have wanted to do for decades.
The 1975 report is called “$100 Million Could Be Saved Annually In Postal Operations In Rural America Without Affecting The Quality Of Service.” The opening sentence reads: “The Postal Service has been faced with critical financial problems in recent years. In fiscal year 1974, expenses exceeded revenues by about $2.3 billion.” The report’s recommendation? Close 12,000 small rural post offices and save $100 million.
The parallels between the 1975 report and our current situation are even more striking if you figure for inflation and convert those 1975 numbers to 2011 dollars. The 1974 deficit of $2.3 billion would come to $9.7 billion in today’s dollars — over a billion dollars more than the $8.5 billion the Postal Service lost in fiscal year 2010. Yet somehow the Postal Service survived without closing all those post offices.
Similarly, in both 1975 and 2011, the estimated savings that would have come from closing thousands of post offices is minute. In 1975, closing 12,000 post offices would have saved $100 million — less than 4% of the deficit. In 2011, closing the 3,652 post offices of the Postal Service’s Retail Access Optimization initiative might save $200 million — 2.3% of the 2010 deficit.
There are still more parallels. In June 1975, when the report came out, the country was just coming out of a recession that had been caused by the quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC (hence the refernce to the rise in fuel prices as one cause of the Postal Service deficit) and by the 1973-74 stock market crash. The recession had caused a dramatic drop in mail volume, and there were concerns that the volume might never return.
There were also fears, as the GAO said in a second report in 1976, that "electronic funds transfer is increasing in usage and the use of computer terminals for direct exchange of information is on the upswing," both of which "might affect demand for traditional postal services." How many times over the past year have we heard the same thing said about online bill paying and email causing a permanent "electronic divergence" from the mail?
One last parallel: The 1975 GAO report suggests that one way to "remedy" the loss of a post office for a community would be to set up a "contractor-operated community post office" (CPO) or a "rural branch . . . operated under contract by persons who are not postal employees." Maybe this is where Postmaster General Donahoe got the concept for replacing thousands of rural post offices with contractor-operated "Village Post Offices" (VPO).
So why is history repeating itself this way? Why is the Postal Service still trying to close post offices?